Books, Childhood, Myself

On Stephen King Rarities #2

This is the second part of a series of posts on collecting Stephen King limited editions.

The Second Book

Salem’s Lot, Centipede Press

Photograph by Jerry Uelsmann

Every now and then I think about the purpose of this blog, and am assaulted by dark thoughts about vanity and pointlessness. But then an exercise like this makes me realize why it is important to me. A simple thing –– memory. With the inevitability of time, the onset of age, and the realization of my mortality, there is comfort in remembering moments that made me who I am. It is strange to look back and realize that I read a book for the first time when I was nineteen; I will turn forty this year, which means that a literal lifetime has passed by. Until I started writing this post, I didn’t consciously think about Salem’s Lot and my first experience of it. I was trying to think of what the cover of my copy looked like. And when I did, a bunch of surprising memories tumbled out.

In the summer of 1998, important things were happening in my life. I had graduated from Pre-University (or Higher Secondary, a term I personally did not prefer) in Cotton College, Guwahati. The early part of that year was spent appearing for multiple examinations; first came the Higher Secondary exams, the hall-pass required by the powers that be to declare us suitable to appear for various other examinations, each dedicated to a Hallowed Institution. Those included the IITs (did not make it through), Roorkee examinations (the secondary choice, and one I was not interested in), and the Joint Admission Tests, the ones which guided my life. Once the exams were done, it was then time to scramble across the country applying for various disciplines. There wasn’t any time to waste, future careers were at stake. All that we knew, back then, was that we needed to make it into a Good College, somewhere outside Assam. Everything else would fall into place.

In my inner life, however, I was absorbed with other things, primarily a newfound passion for the writings of Stephen King. The Shining had exploded into my consciousness during a trip to Delhi. Suddenly, in this pre-Internet world of coincidental self-curation, this writer’s work clicked with me in that inexplicable way, like a floating jigsaw piece that snaps into place and unlocks a puzzle you’ve been dreaming of completing. The more I looked up this guy’s books (and the most you could do, at that time, was look up Encyclopaedia Brittanica entries, or ask around), they showed promise. They did not seem formulaic, ranging from killer dogs to telepathic children to childhood monsters. Stephen King seemed like the kind of guy who wrote books just for me.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the booksellers of Guwahati were impervious to the charms of Sai King. The only book I saw on display was Cujo, and the number of unsold copies just turned me off, a phenomenon I refer to as the ‘Waiting To Exhale effect’, named after the other book that kept turning up in every single bookshop I visited in India. So while my parents fretted about the upcoming cross-country travel to my new alma mater, the one thing ticking away in my mind was –– how do I maximize the potential to pick up King books on the train ride? We were going to pass through Calcutta, a place whose bibliophilic charms I was familiar with, thanks to summer science camps from the last two years. I convinced my father to stop in Howrah for half a day, also making it clear what my intentions were. Not ashamed to admit that I was blatantly taking advantage of his separation anxiety.

In any case, we ended up in Gol Park, the Used Fiction Central in the city, much like College Street was the Used Textbook Haven. I don’t think I ever saw the actual park that gave the place its name, because every time I was there, hours would pass as I pored over the stacks of books along the street stalls. Not all the shops would be open at the same time, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see a bookseller languidly walk and unshutter a set of wooden planks, and begin that algorithmic Display Dance, where the best-sellers got pride of place, while the real, kooky titles that I was interested in would be relegated to the back, or be lost in a forest of multi-colored spines. It was a great game, maybe The Greatest Game I loved to play while growing up, this act of excavating shiny treasures from amidst dust and age. The byproduct of scarcity, I guess.

That day, I struck metaphorical gold. Not only did I find some great King books, but they were being sold at great prices. There was DesperationNight ShiftInsomnia, and the non-fiction Danse Macabre, and managed to talk down the bookseller with a combination of flattery and nonchalance that I had perfected in Guwahati. My father was amused by the haggling, I knew he would just have paid the 150 Rs instead of the 100 that we finally agreed on.

As the guy was pocketing the money, he off-handedly pointed me to a different store. “He may have a Stephen King or two”, he said. I wasn’t too convinced, I had given the shop he pointed at a once-over, and was not taken by the gentleman’s collection. There were some Conan The Barbarian paperbacks, and an Agatha Christie or two, but I had been thorough enough, and there was narry a King in sight. But I took a chance, went over, and asked the gentleman directly, which is something you do not do, dear bargain hunters. Because if the seller knows you are looking for a writer, the price does not budge.

“Hmmm, King, King”, the man muttered to himself, casting an eye on the shelves behind him. Just as I was sure it was time to go, he said “Aha, yes, yes, here”, and brought out a book that had no cover, no discernible spine (which explained why I did not see it in the first place), and covered in a layer of dust. I flipped to page one, and caught my breath.

It was Salem’s Lot. To my Dracula-worshipping eighteen-year old self, there was no other King title I was more interested in. ‘Vampires in small-town America’ was a phrase that made my nether regions tingle. So I did the logical thing, which was to put the book back on the shelf, with a vague look of nonchalance on my face. “It’s too damaged, dada”, I said. “I would have bought it if it was in a better condition. “

“Condition shondition”, he countered. “You won’t find this anywhere else.”

I knew. But obviously I did not want him to know that I knew.

“Na na, I am headed to Hyderabad, they may have more copies there.”

“Hmm, fine fine. But I would have sold it for….”, he paused, and spat a dollop of paan juice to the side. “Hmm, twenty rupees. Yes, it is yours for twenty.”

I looked at him with awe and disgust. “Dada, I just bought these three pristine-looking books for 25 Rs each, from your friend over there.”

“Did you? Did you? Hmm, how much do you want to pay then?”

“I am not even sure I want it, it’s…”, I picked up the book and grimaced. “It’s so old, I can read it once and then it will fall apart.” Which was sort of true, really.

“All right, it’s bohni time”, he said, and spat again. Bohni, dear readers, is the peculiar belief that the first sale of the day is more important than other sales, and concessions have to be made to facilitate it. “Last offer, 10 rupees.”

I could see my father, a little tired of the rigmarole, edge towards his wallet, and before he could, I blurted out. “Five rupees!”

And regretted it the next second, because of course it was too low, and the guy would be insulted, and he would ask me to get out of town and never come back again. 

That did not happen. He shrugged, spat for the third time, and said, “Ok fine, five it is.”

Dear reader, you wouldn’t have believed the shit-eating grin on my face as I walked away. Or maybe you do. It stayed on my face for the bulk of the day, and every now and then, I would open my bag and touch the five new Stephen King books I bought that day, just to make sure I owned them, and that I was still in the real world.

The train stopped at Vijaywada a day later, our last major stop before the journey ended, and a quick trip to the largish bookstore on the Central Platform got me The Dark Half and Four Past Midnight. They were new books, and I paid 50 Rs each for them, which was the limit of my mental allowance for a book at that point of time in my life. My father did not complain, he somehow understood that this was important for me. Plus separation anxiety.

I read all the books in the course of the next year. Back then, it was a bad idea to blaze through reading material, because days of hitting the motherlode would be followed by extended periods of scarcity. In a few years, that would no longer be the case, but I had no idea then. So I paced myself. Salem’s Lot was the last of the lot I read, obviously. I read the short story ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ in Night Shift, and wondered if the book was related. But the story was more Lovecraft than Dracula, and as it turned out, they weren’t connected by anything other than the name of the place where the story and the novel were set. The Lot, with Castle Rock and Derry, form the trinity of fictional Maine towns that King created in his version of the state. It was inspired by small towns, and the story of a specific ghost town.

It is based on a town in upstate Vermont, that I heard about as an undergraduate in college, called Jeremiah’s Lot. I was going through Vermont with a friend and he pointed out the town, just in passing, as we went by in the car. He said, “You know, they say that everybody in that town just simply disappeared in 1098.” I said, “Aw, come on. What are you talking about?” He said, “That’s the story. Haven’t you heard of the Marie Celeste where everybody supposedly disappeared? This is the same thing. One day they were there and then one day a relative came over to look for someone that they hadn’t heard from in awhile; and all of the houses were empty. Some of the houses had dinner set on the table. Some of the stores still had money in them. It was covered in mold from the summer damp and it was starting to rot, but nobody had stolen it. The town was completely emptied out.”

https://bit.ly/2PlVueI

My favorite memory of Salem’s Lot does not have to do with my first read. Of course I enjoyed the book, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I was enthralled by the small-town setting, the moments of tension that King builds slowly, those terrifying sequences when shit really hits the fan in the town. The downbeat ending crushed my heart, but I respected the writer’s choices. They were, as always, great choices.

My favorite memory of Salem’s Lot was convincing my friend Udatta to read the book. My college seniors tolerated my King-lust, but they found the writing too weird or pulpy, and horror is not an emotion people crave. Udatta in general was fond of classic literature, he was my gateway to the likes of Henry Miller and the Beat writers. He picked up Salem’s Lot, I suspect, because it did not have a cover. He took it from me one weekday afternoon, and at about 10 PM in the night, I hear a knock on the door of my hostel room. 

“Chetri”, he said. “You’re coming with me.”

“Uh, ok. Where?”

“My room. My roommates are away, and I just read this scene where the children appear at the window in the middle of the night, and now I cannot look at my window. Or be in my room alone.”

I confess I cackled more unkindly than I should have, but I did end up spending the night giving him company as he finished the book. After which he threw it at me and said, “Great book. But I am not reading any more of your King stuff ever again.”

That copy did not fall apart as I had claimed. Books are more resilient than the rest of us.

Some years later, I was in Waldenbooks in Hyderabad, when I saw an incredible copy of Salem’s Lot for sale. It was the illustrated edition, and it had an insane price tag, something like 500 Rs. I didn’t buy it, and for many years, had a twinge of regret every time I thought about not buying it.

Searching for this book later on eBay, however, led me to realize that it was the mass-market edition of an extremely limited release of Salem’s Lot, by a publishing house called Centipede Press. How limited? Here’s the description:

When I bought it –– oh yeah, I knew I had to buy it, once the collectible lust was on me –– I was astounded by the sheer heft of the thing. It looks comparable to one of the Taschen XL books, and weighs six kilos (13 lbs). The all-black cloth binding, embossed sparsely with the name of the book and its author, is austere and classy at the same time. Jerry Uelsmann’s pre-digital era photomontages are somber works of art that complement the tone of the book perfectly. The cloth covering does make it sort of a dust magnet, but that does not bother me much. It does bother me, however, that the weight of the book makes it impossible to read normally.

But boy, does it look great on the shelf.

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Books

On Stephen King Rarities #1

I have been a Stephen King fan since a memorable train ride . My teenage years were spent writhing and giggling to his stories, until one fine day, I blinked, and realized that that crusty, fireside voice of his seemed a little too familiar, a tad too self-absorbed by the idea of the legions of Constant Readers hanging on to his every word. His writings seemed to have taken on a rambling, don’t-give-a-fuck quality that did not sit well with my tastes at the time. Like he was dusting off unedited, half-written manuscripts from his early years and hurling them at his editors. Specifically, his brush with death made it feel like he wanted all the unwritten material that bubbled in him—good, bad and ugly—to spout a spray of pages, taking his self-proclaimed ‘diarrhea of the word processor’ to its logical extreme. There were books that I did not finish because they were too self-indulgent. CellDreamcatcher, From a Buick 8.

But times changed, and I read Joe Hill, who reminded me how good his dad had been. Once I took a hit of King Sr’s newer stuff, it was hard to ignore the fact that the guy still had it. The Bill Hodges trilogy was fantastic, as was Revival. I began to keep track of Stephen King releases all over again, and began a reread of the older books. Turns out they still held up, yay.

And one fine day—because Marie Kondo or not, I am still a covetous creature at heart—I found myself wondering about how fruitful it would be to own signed copies the King books that I loved.

Background: Finding Signed Stephen King Novels

It’s easy to find signed Stephen King books for sale. If you want, I could give you two that I have lying around, or fourteen, if you give me a minute with that pen. What I mean is that it is illogical to buy a book that says “signed by Stephen King” unless you are very sure of the provenance. Counterfeit signatures abound so much that California recently passed a law to discourage fakes. This happens to be a terrible piece of legislation that, though well-intended, threatens small booksellers, some of whom are taking legal action against it. The only way of legitimately getting an authentic signed book is to attend a King talk or signing; but that depends on how lucky you are—a limited number of books are randomly signed by the author and then distributed with the tickets. Add to it the fact that he does not really travel to California, limiting himself to his Maine/East Coast haunts.

It therefore did not make sense to run after any signed book, then – the only alternative for me was an “official” limited edition. Most authors with dedicated fan followings are courted by small presses, like Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance, Centipede Press, to name a few. These books are solicited in limited numbers, with lettered editions (usually 26 copies only, numbered from A-Z, and sometimes AA-ZZ, with a total of 52 copies) being the creme de la creme of the lot. Numbered signed editions come next, with print runs of a few hundred. Then come the “trade” or “gift” editions, which are usually unsigned. These books have small runs, have high-quality paper and binding, come in slipcases that prevent shelf-wear, and are often illustrated by big-name illustrators. They also feature additional material, if the publishing house is working in collaboration with the writer, and the signatures come on pages that are part of the binding.

Once I dipped my toe into the high-end collectible market, what began as a regardez-touche pas strategy online became a mad carousel of heady information:

  • Who knew that the Doubleday printings of the early King novels were so reviled? Badly printed with cheap glue binding, that’s why. Though first printings command high prices on the market, they were not aesthetically appealing, and King collectors hate them. Cemetery Dance actually republished the first six King books in limited collectible editions recently.
  • I had no idea that King himself owned a publishing house called Philtrum Press based in Bangor, Maine, where he oversaw the printing of several limited edition signed and numbered books. Philtrum’s output included The Plant, an episodic novel that was meant to be a Christmas gift to close King friends, and were later released as a pay-as-you-like e-book in an experiment to test the online market—that didn’t work out, and King hasn’t finished the book yet. The same press also released the limited edition of Eyes of The Dragon.
  • A company called Dragon Rebound is releasing its custom rebound editions of Stephen King’s books. Here’s the concept — they take first edition copies of a King book and bind it afresh, and that feels like an understatement after I have typed it out. Their Firestarter release, for example, have covers made of real sycamore wood that has been scorched by fire. Their copy of It comes in a fucking cast iron case, one that resembles a sewer grate. While these books are not signed by the writer, they are seriously limited. The first three books in the series have 26 copies each, while the fourth has 52. There apparently is a wait-list of 250 people waiting to jump in.

However, getting hold of those signed limited editions involves either crouching like a tiger and not draggin’ your hide when the books come up on eBay—sorry, couldn’t resist—or waiting for the next King book to be solicited by any of those publishers. The latest one to get the deluxe treatment was Sleeping Beauties, from Cemetery Dance. I was this close to ordering the limited edition for myself but the $475 retail price stopped me at the last minute. Also does not help that the book, solicited in 2016, still hasn’t been published. That hasn’t prevented the secondary market asking price of about $600-750, depending on who you ask.

With King collectibles, in order not to lose focus, I set three major goals for myself. Three of my favorite books and specific editions, and happily, I managed to hit all three of them. Let me talk about the first one, then.

The First Book: IT 25th Anniversary Signed and Limited Edition

The first time I saw this book was in a movie called Stuck in Love. It’s a funny, heartwarming movie, where three of the protagonists—father, daughter and son—are writers at different stages of their lives. Long story short, there is a Stephen King cameo (just not the way you think) and the limited edition of the book makes an appearance. I was struck by the cover art, the hefty size and of course, because of the fact that this was It, goddammit (um, what?). The book that King refers to as his ‘final exam on Famous Monsters’, and writes about thus in his afterword to this edition of the book.

The central conceit of the book came to me one day when I was walking across a wooden bridge over a dry stream. The hollow thud of my bootheels made me remember a story from my childhood: “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” There was a troll in the story, hiding under a bridge very much like the one I was crossing.

“Who is that trip-trapping on my bridge?” the troll would ask, a question that struck me—even as a child—as innocent on top, but very sinister beneath. As my bootheels clomped, I began thinking about the differences between our childhood fears—monsters, abandonment, monsters, mistreatment, monsters, bullies, monsters—and our more mundane adult fears, like whether or not our job’s insurance program covers dental. It seemed to me that we forgot the vividness of those childhood fears as we grew to adults, which might make us uniquely vulnerable to them if they ever came back…not as the shadows of tree-limbs on the wall or an imagined movie-poster monster in the closet, but as real things.

I began to see a structure where I could alternate children battling real monsters with the adults they became twenty-five years later. The monster would be a kind of psychic projector, which would allow me to use all the monsters that frightened me at the Saturday matinees of my youth: the mummy, the Crawling Eye, the werewolf, even that uniquely wonderful Japanese monster, Rodan. That idea delighted me. All the monsters! All the fucking monsters! And what would the central monster be? The one hiding behind all the masks and mirrors? It turned out to be a vast spider (think Tarantula!), but I didn’t know that when I started, and it didn’t matter to me. I understood it would really be the troll. The one hiding under all the bridges we cross on the chancy (but wonderful) journey from childhood to adulthood. The one that finally reaches up and pulls all of us under, which we call “dying.”

Let me point out though, that the gift edition appears in the movie, and this version comes in a slipcase and is unsigned. The limited edition comes in a faux leather tray-case, and is signed by both King and the three(!!) artists: Glen Orbik, Alan Wells and Erin Clark. There are 2750 copies of the gift edition, but only 750 of the signed version.

I had been tracking the availability of this book online since I saw it in Stuck in Love, and saw the asking price increase steadily over the years even as copies seemed to become scarcer. Thankfully, my timing was just right — a month or so after I bought my copy, prices started going haywire because of the buzz on the movie. Right now, copies are around the $2800 mark. I paid less than half of that for mine. Pictures below are from an un-numbered PC (Publisher’s Copy) sold at auction. Mine is numbered.

Needless to say, the book looks and feels incredible. The silver embossing on the leather tray-case, hell, the tray-case itself begs to be caressed. The pages have a red color on the edge, like blood seeping into the writing. Seeing the signature on the book (this was the first signed King book I bought) gave me butterflies in my tummy. I will be honest: unlike Frank Darabont, who claims to treat his copies of collectible books as if they were reading copies, I do not have it in me to flip through this book to read it. Which is a contradiction of sorts, I know, but I do most of my reading on the Kindle anyway. I like having this copy on my shelf, as a memory of how far I have come from my teenage days of reading Stephen King via half-torn library paperbacks. Every now and then, I pull it out, read a few pages, and marvel at the turn of events that led me to own a piece of King memorabilia.

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Comics

An Annoyance of a Jeep

(A warning: This is a story about seeking and finding a book. Like most book-finding stories on this blog, this has a happy ending)

About a decade ago, I wrote this, after buying a copy of the first oversized Fantagraphics Popeye volume, called I Yam What I Yam.

Popeye, to most people, is this wisecracking cartoony sailor who woos the awkward Olive Oyl and occasionally pops a can of spinach to knock out baddie Brutus. It comes as a surprise, when one reads the original Elsie Segar stories from the 1930s, to find out that Popeye was originally conceived as a hot-headed, muscle-bound brawler. The original character used his fists to make his way out of an argument just as casually as he went about decimating the rules of grammar while talking, his romantic life secondary to his penchant for fisticuffs.

The Segar Popeye stories hold up surprisingly well. You wouldn’t binge them, true, but unlike the staidness of the venerable Prince Valiant and Gasoline AlleyPopeye is much more rambunctious. The characters are inappropriately zany, and prone to antics that have me laughing out loud. It’s strange how Segar’s humor holds up despite our standards for comedy having changed in the last 80 years. Especially as I get older, and I find that work that tickled my insides a decade ago no longer carry the same power. Sad but true.

The Fantagraphics reprints were solid gold. Printed on stiff paper with excellent production values, each volume had a die-cut opening on the front, and was accompanied by essays from the likes of Bill Blackbeard, Rick Marschall, and Donald Phelps. Every volume had its own title, a famous Popeye-ism (or is that Segar-ism?). But my favorite design touch of all was the fact that the six volumes had the letters “P”, “O”, “P”, “E”, “Y” and “E” imprinted at the bottom of the spine. Which meant you would always shelve them left to right, the correct way, and the six books would look great together.

The six books, together.

It was annoying, therefore, that I neglected to buy Volume 5, Wha’s A Jeep, before it went out of print sometime around 2012.

I have a valid excuse — I was in the midst of a cross-continental life-reboot, and part of setting up one’s presence in a new country was the thought that I should stop with the endless materialistic pursuits that marked my twenties. I put a moratorium on book purchases as much as possible, and the newly bought iPad became my gateway to all reading material.

So when I got around to noticing that what should be spelt “POPEYE” on my shelf showed up as “POPE”, I decided to get the two missing volumes, cocksure in the assumption that prices would have probably come down, especially in the secondary market. Volume 6, called “My Li’l Sweepea” was easy enough to find, but Volume 5 was nowhere to be seen! 

Mild correction: it was to be seen, but at prices that caused volcanoes to explode on Jupiter. The book had gone out of print, and like bees who do the Waggle Dance, the listings on all online bookshops featured exorbitant numbers. Don’t take my word for it, dear reader. Go search for “Popeye” or “Segar” on Abebooks, sort by highest price. The last I checked, some acolyte of Beelzebub (and in LA, no less!) was asking for $1190. The next person on the list has a modicum of shame, and is asking for a mere $501. Looks like the free market works for some people. (Editor’s note: these are asking prices, I can’t imagine anyone buying at that price point)

Oh, did I throb and fret with torment. The books on my shelf now read POPEE, and that of course got my gut churning with the kind of indignation that is accompanied by the sound of bells and matronly voices repeating the word “shame” really loud. From the foggy recesses of my checkered past, there arose a Quest Monster, a single-minded creature that creates Ebay search filters, sends missives to all corners of the globe; and nudges book-sellers and book-buyers alike to go poke around ancient shelves. I found myself once again haunting aisles of local bookstores, a near-extinct practice that reminded me, as I stood up after having squatted for 45 minutes, that I was once a fierce and tireless Book Fiend that had fallen out of practice. Friends asked whether translations of the book were acceptable (no) or damaged copies (nope) and if I had contacted Fantagraphics about publisher’s copies (yes, and they had laughed in my face. Gently enough for me to still care about the publishing house though).

Then one fine day in August, the Quest ended. A seller on Amazon put up his “new, undamaged” copy for sale at the grand price of $50. Turns out I had a 30$ gift card from an office event, and 14$ in Amazon points. I swear I could feel the spindles on the server whirl in a symphony of mutual happiness as I clicked on the Buy button. In the back of my head, I wondered if “new, undamaged” meant the covers were barely intact, and if the seller was hiding secrets that were dark and deep. The book arrived ahead of time, and as I gingerly snapped the cardboard envelope open, I held my breath.

It was perfect. It was better than my copy of Volume 4, to be honest. It looked like it was meant to be on my bookshelf.

So what is the moral of the story, dear reader? There are several, actually. The first, of course, is that the story never ends until the series is complete. Banal, I know, but them’s the facts. But wait, wait, yes, we’re talking morals, not facts. So how about this –– consumerism is a vile and insidious parasite, slowly gnawing away at your reason for existence. You don’t really need any of this shit, you know, but somehow you are compelled to add just one more series to your shelf, and make your life feel whole.

The last and most important moral is that if you are into classic comics, it is both a fine and terrible time to be alive. There are more high quality comics in print than at any other point in human history. But, yes, you knew there was a but coming, but FOMO is real in the comics business. Books keep going out of print in a manner similar to series being released on Netflix –– which is, all the fucking time. Do you want to read Chic Young’s classic Blondie strips that IDW reprinted a few years ago? Vol 1 of 2 is out of print. Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane? Vol 2 is out of print. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat? Nearly all of it out of print. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts? The bulk of the 24-volume set is no longer available. Perilous times, friends.

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Albums, Music

Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan

This is a good time to mention that Susheela Raman has a new album that came out last year, called Ghost Gamelan.

In case you didn’t know, Gamelan is a form of traditional music from Indonesia, primarily the islands of Bali and Java. The music is percussive, and its origins lie in Javanese mythology, from the story of a king who summoned the gods by playing on three gongs. So while gamelan incorporates a variety of musical instruments, the majority of the world identifies it via the distinctive sound of the metallic and bamboo gongs, xylophones, and cymbals that are used in the ensemble.

The first time I heard the sound of gamelan was, even though I did not know it then, the soundtrack of Akira. The layered, propulsive beats that underscored the violent motorcycle chase sequence in the opening moments of the film was all bamboo and metal gongs. The sound captures the frantic energy onscreen with perfection, and still manages to pump me up every time the beats kick in. For a movie that released in 1988, the music does not sound the least bit dated. (Contrast this to another sci-fi anime epic that released in the same time period -– I adore Joe Hisaishi, but the Nausicaa OST screams its time-period from the first synth-note)

Raman’s album, in contrast to Akira, fluctuates between percussion-heavy pieces (‘Tanpa Nama’) and slow, meditative pieces (‘Beautiful Moon’, ‘Spoons’) that accentuate the moodiness the musical form is capable of. Sometimes, her lyrics and the main melody dance around the traditional music elegantly, yin and yang (‘Ghost Child’); in others, voice and gong echo in unison. ‘Annabel’ is probably the only track that is old-school Susheela, and is a wonder unto itself. Oh, and the last song ‘Rose’ features lyrics by William Blake. While I don’t like quoting promotional material from album releases, the official text describes the music far better than I can:


Javanese music evokes  the invisible; ancestral presences, old religions, volcanic rumblings, and court intrigues. A sensuality of appearances, decorum, ritual and procession runs to trance and possession. Meanwhile, Raman’s songs here are meditations on change, transformation and mortality. Lyrics reflect on uncertainties cast by memory, desire and the ephemeral.  In this album, tonality and rhythm are questioned and de-centred, just as much as they are asserted. Some records achieve a fixed quality but this record is very ‘alive’, or volatile, both in the performances but also in the way it shifts as you hear it. The vitality of the interactions, of the musical cultures misbehaving with each other, result in a sound more ‘unearthly’ than ‘world’.

https://bit.ly/2PpKqxa

A major part of the album depends on the skills of Raman’s collaborator, Javanese musician Godrang Gunarto and his ensemble. You can see them live here (apparently, they have been touring together since 2017) , wait for 3:42.

One of my favorite experiences with gamelan was a Hammer museum exhibit called The Gamelatron, from two years ago. This was an open-air installation featuring a five-piece kinetic sculpture that used robotics, metal gongs, and timers to play gamelan-inspired music. Viewers were encouraged to lounge around in seating areas and soak in the harmonies that played throughout the day. It was a blissful hour, and I remember coming out of the exhibit feeling rejuvenated.

I loved revisiting the music of Susheela Raman. It’s been 13-odd years since I heard Love Trap for the first time (and forged a life-long friendship in part because of a mutual love for her album). I hadn’t listened to her in years; a Whatsapp message earlier this year brought her again into my periphery, and this apparently is what I missed since 2011:

  • a 2011 album called Vel, which I never listened to
  • a cover of a Naushad song called ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahaani’ for a 2013 movie called Kajarya (which strays into familiar territory as ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Love Trap)
  • a strange 2014 album called Queen Between, which features Raman collaborating with neither available on Spotify in the US, nor via any online music stores. Amazon has a (used) CD for sale, so it looks like this was never released in the US. So here we are, in 2019, unable to listen to an album with a few keystrokes and minimal latency. What is this world coming to?

At this point, our intrepid music explorer remembers this little-known site called Youtube, and he blushes at his tirade against digital tyranny. “I recant”, he exclaims, as his senses are filled with chocolate and chiffon, marshmallow and clouds. Behold, unbelievers, the joys of ‘Sharabi’, by Susheela Raman and Rizwan Muazzam.

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